- 1 Planning and preparation
- 2 Which photo equipment do I need?
- 3 Camera settings
- 4 Exposure time
- 5 RAW or JPEG?
- 6 Things to shoot in the night sky
- 7 Your pictures and experiences
I am regularly out in the dark and love photographing the night sky. However, photographing stars isn´t that easy. Especially for beginners, these special light conditions are a real problem.
In my blog post, I would like to show you how get started in the field of nightsky photography.
Planning and preparation
Always take your time planning. Do not just go outside unprepared – because that may make the resultig photographs disappointing. Get an image in your mind, think about what you want to photograph and plan ahead!
Know the night sky
Very few people know where to find which constellations or even the Milky Way. So take a map of the night sky with you. Id doesn´t matter if it´s in digital form as an app on the smartphone or a real map. It helps a lot finding your object of interest fast!
There are a handful astronomy apps there for Android and iOS. I especially recommend Stellarium and Starwalk. Stellarium is also available as free software for Windows, OS X, Linux and is perfect for planning your nightly photo trip throughout the year!
Also important: A small LED flashlight should also be packed with your gear (ideally a red light, or cover the LED with a red foil). It helps setting up your gear and keeps you safe on the ground so you don´t stumble in the dark.
Clothing and food
Get dressed warmly – not just in winter: “Better sweat a lot than freeze tonight!”. Taking pictures of the night sky is no fun if your fingers are frozen or your toes turn blue.
Quite apart from the fact that the operation of the camera takes forever with forzen fingers 🙂 – we don´t want to get a cold either! Warm and firm shoes, warm clothes & a pot of tea are never wrong to take with you!
Keep in mind: Your body cools damn fast if you don´t move.
Before you go out, check your camera battery, check that your lenses are clean (!) and that there´s a memory card with enough space on it in your camera.
Weather & Environment
In order to get as many stars as possible on our sensor, we ideally need a clear and cloudless sky!
It is also important, that the moon is below the horizon or it´s new moon, because the moon outshines so many stars. A full moon winters night shows you how bright the moon really is.
Apps or various lunar calendars help you choosing the right days for nightsky photography.
Light pollution ist becoming more and more a big problem in urban areas. If it´s possible, travel to the darkest place in your area. Don´t take pictures in the middle of the city – drive out into the non urban country or into the forest. The situation with light pollution is much better the more you get away from big cities.
There is an interactive & up-to-date map for light pollution which shows you the darkest locations: http://www.avex-asso.org/dossiers/wordpress/?page_id=3273&lang=de_DE
Which photo equipment do I need?
Bad news first: Unfortunately, in night sky photography, the equipment is quite important to get good and impressive results.
An expensive full-frame camera will certainly allow you to capture those beautiful pictures of the night sky much more easily.
Nevertheless, you can achieve good results with a camera equipped with an APS-C or Micro Four Thirds sensor too.
The big advantage of a full-frame camera is the low noise performance at high ISO values. But as already mentioned – a small camera does it too ?
The good news: For the entry you only need – next to your camera and a kit lens – only a stable tripod.
(Always screw the plate for the tripod mount on your camera before your trip in the dark. Otherwise, it can quickly become quite annoying the get it srewed on in the darkness)
For the first shots (but really only for the first shots!) your kit lens, which is included in most DSLR will do perfectly. For the Canon APS-C cameras this is the 18-55mm EF-S lens. At 18mm, the lens has a aperture of 3.5. Since we want to take wide-angle pictures, this is perfect for getting started!
However, if you want to take really good pictures, you will need a good and wide (at least f/2.8) wide-angle lens. Those wide open, wide-angle-lenses made by Canon and Nikon are very expensive.
But wait – there is a bunch of good wide-angle lenses that have no autofocus and perform awesome for like 1/3 of the money! And let’s face it – autofocus is something landscape or astrophotographers don´t need anyway.
- Especially the brand Samyang (depending on the country of sale also known as Walimex and Rokinon) has some realy gems – For example, a 16mm lens with an incredible open-aperture of f/2.0 for just under 400€ – but only for cameras with APS-C sensor!
- Probably the most widely used lens for full-frame cameras in astrophotography is the Samyang 14mm 2.8. It is a very nice lens that I always have with me in my camera bag. One of the best lenses you can get for less money in landscape and astrophotography and absolutely recommended for entry!
- The only thing that is better is the Sigma 14mm 1.8. Scratching your bank account with around 1600€. It offers the familiar high – quality optical quality of the Sigma Art series.
These lenses are already quite bright and useful for little money:
- Sigma / Tamron 17-50mm – 2.8 approx. 350 € – Some of the Milky Way photos shown here were created with this lens
- Canon / Nikon 50mm 1.8 fixed focal length – approx. 100 € – ideal to photograph partial sections of the Milky Way and to use for portraits
- Canon 24mm 2.8 STM fixed focal length – about 150 €
A remote trigger is very useful, but not essential. After all, almost every camera today has a timed self-timer.
Nevertheless, it has some advantages with the remote shutter to work and the purchase does not cost even 10 €. Because to the fact that the camera better not be touched, so you won´t trigger any shocks, which can be felt on a cheap tripod quite several seconds.
In addition, you can only use a remote shutter for more than 30 seconds on most cameras.
Your remote trigger should get a fixed place in your camera bag, so you won´t forget it while packing the equipment.
Now weré getting to the hard part – even though the main settings are summarized quickly:
We always shoot in manual or in BULB mode (BULB requires a remote trigger). So why shoot in manual? Well, the camera is in a difficult lighting situation and we want to have complete control over the exposure.
We shoot as wide open as possible – at least f/2.8. Because a wide aperture (small f-number) means that we captore more light. And we need a lot of light! The only exception are star trails, where only the brightest stars should generate startrails.
Any image stabilization (IS, VC, VR, etc.) must be deactivated. On a tripod, an image stabilizer may be counterproductive. And actually, there is no movement that we need to compensate.
Always focus manually – so turn your autofocus off. The autofocus won´t help you anyway since it is so dark.
The hardest part actually is getting the focus on infinity. Some lenses have infinity marks (∞) on the focus ring, which makes focussing correct much easier.
If you don´t have such mark on your lens: First, try to focus on a distant object – a church tower, a windmill or something like that. You can also focus directly at a bright star. However, you need a lot of patience and really good eyes for that to work.
Always focus in liveview with activated 10x magnification and adjust the focus in small steps if necessary. Stars are in focus when they are as small as you can get them.
Many mirrorless cameras support so-called focus-peaking, which makes manual focus much easier.
Alternatively, you can focus on infinity during the day and mark the focus level clearly visible on the lens. Of course, this is only useful on lenses in which the focus ring can´t be rotated infinitely ?
Also do test shots! ALWAYS zoom in completely into your test shots and check the sharpness. Nothing is more annoying than realizing ,that after a 3 hour session all the shots you made are slightly out of focus!
The ISO value should be between 100 (star trails) and 6400 (Milky Way) depending on the noise behavior of the camera and the desired subject.
Try to bump ISO as high as you can get it – however, don´t overdo it so you only got noise in the picture.
For example, if you want to photograph the Milky Way on a dark night, ISO should be quite high – so from 1600 onwards.
In the case of star trails, small ISO values (100 – 200 – depending on the initial aperture on the lens) – in this scenario we expose many minutes and can catch the extremely bright stars as line traces due to the low ISO value.
Just try different values and decide for yourself. If I want to photograph many stars with a good noise ratio, using ISO1600 on a Canon 70D works quite well for me.
On my full-frame bodies ISO3200 to 10000 is working great, thanks to the bigger sensor!
I always prefer to take a noisy photo, than no photo.
How to avoid star trails
The shutter speed depends on the desired subject and your focal length.
The earth rotates fast, so we get star trails from certain exposure times.
Basically, the more wide-angle a lens is and the closer the image section is aimed towards Polaris, the longer we can expose without getting any visible star trails. If you take a photograph of stars at the horizon, you should keep your shutter speeds shorter.
But even with the standard zoom kit-lens you can realize long exposuress without getting startrails.
The maximum exposure time for images without star trails can be easily calculated:
500 / (Cropfactor of the camera * focal length) = max. exposure time
Night sky Exposure Calculation – APS-C Camera
On my EOS 70D (Cropfactor 1,6) together with the Tamron 17-50mm – with set 17mm results in me the following value:
500 / (1.6 * 17) = 18.38 seconds
Night sky Exposure Calculation – Full-Frame Camera:
If I took my 6D (Cropfactor 1) and a 16mm lens, the result would have been different:
500 / (1 * 16) = 31.25 seconds
Night sky Exposure Calculation – Micro-four-thirds Camera:
I take an Olympus OMD 5 (Cropfactor 2) and a 12mm lens:
500 / (2 * 12) = 20.83 seconds
If the chosen combination of shutter speed and aperture is not enough to pick up weak structures like the Milky Way clear and sharp, you can compensate that with higher ISO values first. On the other hand, a longer shutter speed on Milky Way shots will give you just blurry stuff.
Or you can use an even wider lens or a tracking-device ?
Creating star trails
However, if you want to have a picture with star trails, we can safely expose 30 minutes in BULB mode – for the beginning at least. “Stacking” will give you better results. I’ll talk about the subject of stacking in a later blog post (possibly in the summer, if a little more milky way is visible ?
RAW or JPEG?
Please always shoot in RAW format.
Why RAW and not JPG? Because we want as much detail as possible and most likely digitally rework the images later on. Each image saved as a JPG is a compressed image. And compression always means: image details are lost and gone FOREVER!
White balance doesn´t matter as long as we shoot in RAW format. We can change the white balance while processing the image later on. So don´t worry about it.
Custom functions of the camera
If you use a DSLR, turn on the mirror pre-triggering. This helps reducing shutter vibration that may cause some motion blur on cheap tripods.
Things to shoot in the night sky
Stars and constellations
First, you should try on the most particularly know constellations. Orion stands out in the winter especially in the eye and is always a nice photo opportunity.
The big and the little dipper are also good known constellations that stand out. If you find the constellation Cassiopeia, you can even catch the Andromeda galaxy in a wide-angle shot.
Andromeda will be recognizable as a small “milky dot” with basic looks of a galaxy in the pictures. And Andromeda is really big. It´s as big as the full moon!
Venus is bright, easy to find and a perfect entry-level object, if you have a telephoto lens! But unfortunately gets very unspectacular, if you have seen the sickle of Venus a few times. If you have a good telephoto lens, you can take a picture of Jupiter and its biggest 4 moons. With a 200mm lens you should already be able to recognize the companions of the gas giant. Jupiter is also easy to find in the sky. Use an app for the first few times to find Jupiter.
Soon you will recognize the typical color and brightness of the king of our solar system all by itself. Saturn, the second largest planet in our solar system, can also be captured with a 300mm telephoto lens. The rings are slightly noticeable. But getting a good shot of Saturn is a lot harder.
The moon is by far the most conspicuous object in the night sky. However, we have to choose quite different settings here than previously described. Because the moon is basically nothing but a stone, which is illuminated by the sun.
Taking pictures of the moon
These settings will help you taking a good picture of the full moon::
- Use a tripod
- 1/125 – 1/250 sec. Exposure time
- ISO 100
- If it´s not full moon, use f/8
- Some cameras let you focus the moon via autofocus
Shooting the Milky Way
The Milky Way is always a spectacular sight. Especially since the camera reveal whats invisible to the naked human eye. However, without the necessary knowledge, it´s not easy to get a good picture of the Milky Way. Therefore, it is important to plan ahead.
First, find out when the Milky Way is clearly visible. Ideally, this is when it is new moon or the moon is still below the horizon (app, lunar calendar). However, new moon is always the better choice! In the summer months, the Milky Way is visible the best in our northern latitudes. In winter, however, only a small part is visible. With Stellarium and the online tool “The Photographers Ephemeris” you can plan your shot down to the second.
Find a place with little light pollution. In the city center of Frankfurt/Main it´s near to impossible to get a good shot of the Milky Way. So get out into an area where it´s really dark.
Those who spend their winter holidays in the southern hemisphere can take spectacular pictures of the Milky Way and the large and small Magellanic Clouds.
Instructions & settings to photograph the Milky Way:
- Use M-mode, tripod, mirror pre-triggering, time-controlled release or remote release.
- Use a wide-angle lens
- Shoot as open as possible, at least f/2.8
- High ISO: 1600 to 10000
- Shutter speed: 20 – 30 seconds depending on focal length
Your pictures and experiences
Now I’m interested in whether you ever tried shooting the night sky and what your results look like. Just use the comments section under this post and let me know! I always welcome your comments, suggestions and pictures of you!
And as always, if you enjoyed the post and it helped you, then support me by sharing it ?
Some more images i took